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In “Some Day Your Witch Will Come”, Kay Stone gives a compelling argument that fairy tales, on their own, while they may have the intention of acting as a “training manual” (21), can stray wide of the mark.

Especially, she says, when it comes to the question of girls, yes, maybe fairy tales have some questionable messages, but how do we know the girls are getting these messages.

She points out that there may not be many independent, ferocious heroines in the fairy tales commonly told in American culture. Well, of course, there is not one American culture to begin with. But if we think about the fairy tales that have the largest popular currency, and then the female characters in them, we see a lot of females stagnating, even perhaps marinating, in passive or questionable roles — certainly not the kind heroines we might expect to have survived into the 21st century.

A question she raises, though, is are we looking hard enough at the way people assimilate stories. Children in particular.  Maybe, she suggests, instead of needing new stories, we need to remind ourselves the breadth of riches an old story can provide. For one thing, she says, we can’t predict what girls will take from a fairy tale about a princess whose passivity is rewarded. We can’t assume which character a girl will identify with. A girl, while reading a fairy tale, might just as easily identify with a witch or prince or evil stepsister as with a cindarella or a snow white.

Well, it’s unlikely, isn’t it. At least, against the odds. Sure, it probably happens sometimes.

Stone also suggests that many kids might extrapolate from snow white some formidable qualities — that snow white is actually a prism and not the sheet on the marriage bed just before (god willing not after) copulation. In other words, Stone seems to insist, you don’t have to look at snow white and see snow white or even noodly white or lily white, whitey whitey dainty, lacy white. A lot of kids, she says, look at snow white and see red (or maybe even shades of gray? A curiosity).

And, she adds, there are things to think about beyond identification. Beyond identification, there are whole other layers of meaning and interpretive behavior and power. Mainly, in metaphor. A story acts more on the level of metaphor than on any other level and therefore actual situations, actual people and their actual actions don’t translate into a literal understanding of situations and people and their actions.

“…In an interview with a group of fifteen-year old girls, one girl stressed the metaphorical power of fairy tales by suggesting that some experiences might happen, but ‘not in the same way as in stories’.

“Modern readers can comprehend this deeper level of meaning in a fairy tale, and also in legend and myths. As a Cree elder, George Head, tried to explain to a non-native collector about Cree legends: “These are really false stories but they got true meaning’. Similarly, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye comments: ‘The child should not ‘believe’ the story he is told; he should not disbelieve it either, but should send out imaginative roots into the mysterious world between the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ which is where his own ultimate freedom lies.”

Hmmmm. What on earth does Northrop Frye mean by ‘ultimate freedom’? Between the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’? Sounds a little fishy to me. And why does Stone bring up over and over again the girl who says: some experiences might happen, but ‘not in the same way as in stories’.

And moreover, why does she continually rewrite and water down fairy tales to make them less violent and to give them happy endings?

Well, for one, obviously she is concerned that stories have a pedagogical purpose other than to scare the crap out of kids so they’ll behave nicely. And frankly, I think that the purpose of a lot of orally transmitted folk and fairy tales told to children is precisely that (to pedagogically scare the crap out of kids.)

The question is raised, I think, by Stone’s inquiries: in what ways and when do people take fairy tales literally? What about when they’re kids? What about when they’re not kids? I find it interesting that Stone specifies the “modern reader’s” ability to comprehend stories deeply. (When did this ability to comprehend more deeply arrive? Is it a new faculty disovered by one of Nietche’s theologians? – ‘All the young theologians of the Tubingen seminary went off right away into the bushes—all looking for “faculties.”’)

I think a lot of stories are born out of anxiety and used to create anxiety. Which at least means they’re here to stay.

James Shapiro, early modern scholar, asserts that you can tell a lot about cultural anxiety by the stories that are told. I fully agree, and so when I read books of folk tales, I looked for themes. The “Moroccan Folk Tales” (many of which resembled fairy tales) was full of fear about women — women betraying their husbands, their brothers, their step-daughters, their fathers. In the Jewish Folk Tales there’s a lot of anxiety about outsiders, blood libel accusations, being punished by God for failing to be humble or generous with the poor. In the ancient Egyptian folklore the stories were obsessed with questions of accession to the pharoah-ship, leadership, power, vengeance and pleasing the gods. In the African tales the anxiety seemed located around the problem of loyalty, generally between friends.

Stories feed and feed off of anxiety (an abundant food source), but in order to survive, they also need to grip the reader. Perhaps it is the fear that is more often than not, gripping. Suspense uses anxiety or fear as one of its main instruments. But there are other delights. There is violence itself, which is different than fear. And there is beauty. And then, there is beautiful violence and violent beauty. There is mystery that comes from the manufacture of pure curiosity. But, of course, I am not going to try to formulate a philosophy of pure curiosity — curiosity that is not laced with fear or lust or god knows what. If I did, it would be the theologins in the bushes all over again. I’m not looking for purity here. I’m looking for quality.

In Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington the story starts out with a folk tale:

“When I was a little boy of about six years old, I was standing with a maid-servant in the balcony of one of the upper rooms of my father’s house in London–it was the evening of the first day that I had ever been in London, and my senses had been excited, and almost exhausted, by the vast variety of objects that were new to me. It was dusk, and I was growing sleepy, but my attention was awakened by a fresh wonder. As I stood peeping between the bars of the balcony, I saw star after star of light appear in quick succession, at a certain height and distance, and in a regular line, approaching nearer and nearer. I twitched the skirt of my maid’s gown repeatedly, but she was talking to some acquaintance at the window of a neighbouring house, and she did not attend to me. I pressed my forehead more closely against the bars of the balcony, and strained my eyes more eagerly towards the object of my curiosity. Presently the figure of the lamp-lighter with his blazing torch in one hand, and his ladder in the other, became visible; and, with as much delight as philosopher ever enjoyed in discovering the cause of a new and grand phenomenon, I watched his operations. I saw him fix and mount his ladder with his little black pot swinging from his arm, and his red smoking torch waving with astonishing velocity, as he ran up and down the ladder. Just when he reached the ground, being then within a few yards of our house, his torch flared on the face and figure of an old man with a long white beard and a dark visage, who, holding a great bag slung over one shoulder, walked slowly on, repeating in a low, abrupt, mysterious tone, the cry of “Old clothes! Old clothes! Old clothes!” I could not understand the words he said, but as he looked up at our balcony he saw me–smiled–and I remember thinking that he had a good-natured countenance. The maid nodded to him; he stood still, and at the same instant she seized upon me, exclaiming, “Time for you to come off to bed, Master Harrington.”

“I resisted, and, clinging to the rails, began kicking and roaring.

“‘If you don’t come quietly this minute, Master Harrington,” said she, “I’ll call to Simon the Jew there,” pointing to him, “and he shall come up and carry you away in his great bag.’

“The old man’s eyes were upon me; and to my fancy the look of his eyes and his whole face had changed in an instant. I was struck with terror–my hands let go their grasp–and I suffered myself to be carried off as quietly as my maid could desire.”

The maid uses the folktale of the monstrous Jew to induce her charge to listen to her and it works, and not only that, the child, who was not at first afraid of the Jew at all, but rather curious about him, suddenly becomes terrified by his visage. Edgeworth is to some extent speaking from her own experience. She believed that her childhood education — that the stories people told her about Jews and Judaism — led her to become unwittingly antisimetic. Harrington was her strange attempt at an apology or explication.

I began thinking today of the stories I hear people tell, even now, today, every day, to try to hold up the illusion of the perfect other — the notorious, sinning, cannibalistic, care-free, uncivilized, blood-thirsy other. And then there the heroes and heroines: pure female, the heroic male who may kill, but he does it in the right place at the right time for the right reason. And then I began thinking of those stories that fall in between. The stories that take pleasure in their own mischief. Trickster stories. Bawdy stories of cheating and lying in which the cleverest one gets away with the gold, right, wrong, and enjoys it, too.

I once babysat a boy who loved dressing up as evil step-mothers and captain hook. He loved bad guys. He loved ghost stories. He loved being afraid and he loved trying to frighten people. He was also into fairies. In the autumn when the leaves were blowing around, he called them his little fairies. He talked to them. His favorite musical was Daisyhead Maisy. He also liked the Wizard of Oz. His favorite movie, Witches by Roald Dahl. He was five. He was the sweetest kid on earth. Occasionally he’d decide he wanted to be Prince Charming or Peter Pan but it never lasted long. He liked to practice his evil laugh.

I remember stories my mother told me as a kid that scared the bejeeeeeezes out of me and I didn’t even believe them. Even now I wish she hadn’t told them to me. She didn’t do it, I don’t think, to scare me for the sake of scaring me, but she didn’t want to be alone with her immense paranoia and she wanted to teach me how to cope with a fantastically treacherous world. She was offering me the only weapons she knew. This is how you face another day. This is how you become a hero in the occult suburbs of PA, or in the suburbs of the occult, as the case may be.

Freud and Jung both believed in the universality of certain myths and stories and the ability to unravel and understand ourselves by using stories as a map. I do think stories are culture building, and in building our culture, we build the things we will become or the things we will form in opposition to. I do think the stories we hear and tell and seek to hear and yearn to tell about ourselves and the world are, well, very telling. Sometimes I think, of course we share stories. We’re reatures. We all have similar needs, anxieties, desires around living, mating, comfort, trust, power, eating, dying. I don’t really know if there is a key to masterful living or adequate happiness. I think these, too, are all myth. But I love thinking about waking up to the great, blinding light of the sun, perhaps before there is even a word for such a thing, and coming up with that word, pulling it out of the earth’s crotch to fling up at the searing sky. Imagine discovering the sun. We use the word discovery so metaphorically, and so I think, imagine every day waking up to a new consciousness, an awful, rumbling, perilingual thing, and discovering the sun, the faithful mirage, that vexing golden embrace, in all its malevolence and glory.

As a writer, I think what I find most compelling about these tales are their violence, the story’s unswerving knowledge of its own construction — the erosion that happens with every attempt to construct an edifice that separates good and evil — language’s implicit understanding against stasis. I enjoy narratives that have the quality of being spoken. I enjoy short, fabulous narratives. I enjoy people who tell stories that they claim have actually happened, and then looking for the cultural or personal desire that inhabits that story, the cultural anxiety, of course, the relish — the teller’s pleasure in telling, in always trying out a new phrase or moment, sly or without any compunction.Above all, I love relish.

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Sawney Bean

In 1975 Ronald Holmes published a book entitled “The Legend of Sawney Bean” to address a story that had been passed down orally for well over a hundred years (in different forms, probably more like a thousand) before it was first published on broadsheet in 1700.

According to lore, Sawney Bean was the patriarch of a family of three generations of hungry cavedwelling or under-ground dwelling inbred cannibals. Out of laziness or scorn, Bean and his wife left civilized Christian life, begot a small empire, and the lot of them enjoyed only the toil of eating innocent, civilized Christian travelers.

Here’s an excerpt from the original broadsheet:

“Sawney Bean was born in the couny of East Lothian, about eight miles eastward of the city of Edingburgh, in the reign of James I of Scotland. His father was a hedger and a ditcher and brought up his son to do the same laborious employment.

He got his daily bread in his youth by these means, but being very prone to idleness, and not caring to be confined to any honest employment, he left his fathe rand mother, adn ran away into the desert part of the contry, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.”

And then Sawney Bean and his wife procreate and celebrate an everlasting gore-fest — clubbing, gnawing and chugging their victims — until they’re captured and brought to brutal justice.

(This, too, could happen to you, so apply yourself well and stay away from clubs).

Holmes’ “The Legend of Sawney Beane” is a strange book that contradicts itself and never, I think, gets sharply to the heart of the tale and its ongoing popularity. It gets close, though, to important ideas, and perhaps, by running in so many directions, reveals something spectacular about the process of searching for meaning in stories, and what kinds of focus, curiosity, lightness of touch and expertise it might take to try to scare out the polyvalent past of a folktale.

The book is certainly entertaining. The broadsheet itself and its place in the history of a growing print culture struggling to define itself, sell itself and stay within the realms of religious and political acceptability , is fascinating.

***

I want to step away for a moment, take a break from Christianity and cannibalism, and talk about a folktale I recently read in Volume I of Ben-Amos’s (ed.) “Folkatels of the Jews” entitled “Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion.”

The story is called “Sol Hachuel of Tangier” and it’s about a beautiful Jewish girl who befriends Atara, her Arab neighbor. Sol’s mother lets Sol spend time with Atara, but only while the father is away.

The two girls enjoy each other’s company, but the Arab neighbor wants Sol to convert to Islam and Sol continually refuses, which causes some tension between them.

Then Sol’s father finds out Sol has befreinded Atara and tells her she must no longer see Atara. Sol tells Atara she can no longer see her, and they separate.

Atara, angry or upset, as an act of revenge or perhaps without knowing the possible consequences and simply wanting her friend back, goes to the pasha and tells him that Sol, a peerless beauty, wants to convert to Islam, and her parents are keeping her from it. The pasha has the police bring Sol to him and tries to convince her to join his harem, but she refuses. In the end she is executed.

In the commentary after the tale:

“The tale refers to historical events that occurred in 1834 and left their impact on the oral tradition, literature, and religious worship of Moroccan Jewry. Sol (or Suleika) Hachuel (1817 – 1834) was the daughter of Chayyim and Simchah of Tangier. According to historical acounts and oral tales and poems, she was a beautiful, vivacious, and graceful teenager. The accounts of her involvement with her Muslim neighbors differ. The present narrator tells aobut innocent playful friendship between two girls regardless fo their religious difference.

“According to the report in Banaim, Sol escaped to her Muslim neighbor’s yard after a minor quarrel with her mother, whose name in that version is Fadina. The neighbor, a married man, like dSol and tried to seduce her to convert ot Islam and become his wife. She steadfastly refused, but he locked her up and then announced that she had already converted. Consequently, her claims that she was Jewish wee construed as a renunciation of Islam, an act punishable by death. The Jews were helpless and could not find any venue to save her. She was brought before the king; but despite his general kindness to the Jews, he could not resolve the situation. The king tried to convince Sol to convert to Islam, but to no avail. Neither enticement nor torture could lead her astray from her Jewish faith, and she was executed.

“After her death she became knwon as Sol ha-Tzaddikah (The Righteous Sol) or, by the Arabic epithet, as Lalla Suleika (Holy lady Suleika), and her tomb became a pilgrimage site for Jews and Muslims alike. The inscription on the tomb, as Issachar Ben-Ami observed in 1981, is bilingual in Hebrew and French. The Hebrew section can be translated as follows…

“Her martyrdom story became a popular legend among North African Jews. The Jewish Rumanian explorer Israel Joseph Benjamin (1818-1864), who visited Moroccan Jews in the mid-nineteenth century, reported this event. According to his version, it was the Moroccan prince himself who fell in love with Sol and wanted her to convert to Islam and become his wife. Benjamin dated this set of events to 1831…”

In the end, it turns out there are many versions of the story, each with a slightly different plot twist. We know that Sol was a Jewish girl who was executed/martyred by Muslims, perhaps we will never know the exact details. But her life, her insistence on remaining steadfastly Jewish in the face of death, became deeply symbolic to the Jews. I am curious to learn more about her place in Muslim folk history. (This was all I could find — wikipedia “It might seem rather strange that Moroccan Arabs consider the girl to be their saint, but as it was explained by Léon Godard in his “Description et histoire du Maroc: “Despite their intolerance, Moroccans, however contradictory this may appear, do in some cases honour the holy people of other religions, or beg the aid of their prayers from those whom they call infidels. In Fez, they render a kind of worship to the memory of the young Sol Hachuel, a Jew of Tangier, who died in our time of terrible torture rather than renounce the law of Moses, or alternatively renew an abjuration previously made, by yielding to the seductions of love.”)

How does this relate to Sawney Bean?

***

Holmes tries, at times intriguingly and at times, I fear, clumsily at best, to address lots of big topics in this little book: from “Prehistoric Cannibalism”  to “The Legend in Literature” to (whew) “Vampires and Ghouls.” I really think he’s onto something most illuminating when he addresses folklore, cannibalism and Christianity in the same breath.

Throughout his book, Holmes seems torn between finding literal meaning and metaphorical meaning in Sawney Bean. At the time of his writing, archeologists were making discoveries that proved many legends and folktales are, in fact, based on historical people, places and events.

Holmes uses these discoveries as a jumping off point to ask the question: was there really a Sawney Bean? He goes on to discuss possible places where the family might have dwelt, but finds no treasure trove of bones, no proof.

He moves away from this form of literal looking and looks at the conflicts and tales that came before Sawney Bean, longstanding folktales that set the tone and perhaps gave birth to Sawney Bean. In doing so, he offers proof for Christian fear of cannibalism and paganism and the equation of the two, and to some extent supports Christianity’s battering of pagan cultures, and glorifies dangerous distinctions between “civilized” and “uncivilized” behaviors and cultures.

“At the time when the Normans were building their comparatively civilised, comfortable and sanitary castles all over England the natives of Galloway were primitive, savage, warlike and, if not actual cannibals, inclined to use human corpses in horrible ways. They were not particularly backward when compared with the vikings of Harold Hardrada which Harold of England had repulsed, thus allowing William the Conqueror an easier hold on Britain, but as time went on and the civilising influence of Christianity took effect elsewhere the people of Galloway continued in the old ways.”

It’s clear that the story of Sol Hachuel has historical roots. Holmes really tries to give Sawney Bean a chance at the real:

“Some aspects of the legend, however, must be considered to be embellishments rather than themes. The prolific progeny attributed to Sawney and his wife is just possible provided one assumes that they bred like animals and that nature favourde the statistical requirements in selecting the sex of the children. Over the twenty-five years specified, it would be necessary for five of the first six children to be girls and for them to begin to reproduce at the age of thirteen for the figure stated in the legend to be met. In view of the hygiene and the rate of deaths in childbirth at this time this is most unlikely”

(He obviously isn’t up on his cannibal birthing statistics).

He goes on to explore the possibilities of finding remnants of a true cannibal family, but relents at last and despite much pro-Christian anti-heathen language, does address the folktale as a love child born at least partly of propaganda. But he doesn’t look further into the cost of such stories and their fanatical distortions. Instead, it’s as if he sees himself reflected in a body of water, and he knows that below the surface of the water, if he would only reach down, is a moment of truth, even if only the size of a cuttlefish, but he doesn’t want to reach down for fear of distorting his own image (how many of us do?).

Here are some questions I’ve arrived at after reading his book (among others such as, is bog butter good on toast, did George Lucas ever fall into a Wookey Hole, what ever happened to the Laird of Lag):

When does it make sense to go looking for the roots of a folktale in an actual history of events and when does it make more sense to look for roots of a story in ideology or ideological history? And might one explore those places where historical and ideological murals meet and split off from one another? When one tracks a folktale’s journeys, does their scrutiny become part of the story’s historical or ideological life, and might that unleash an originary, unintended fury?

And, perhaps most importantly, how can we dig past the rubble of codified thinking and begin to find, not what stories are revealing, but all that they maniacally (club in hand, bloody teeth bared) try to hide.

***

I supposed I would have to do much more research to do this well, but I would like to call attention to the violence that stories of cannibalism inspire and justify.

Stories of the cannibalizing other, the ones who leave the “civilized world”, or were never a part of that world, are often conjured out of fear of any unknown, but more often conjured by those who aim to have some power over media as a way to keep people mired to specific (and not always savory) cultural practices. Fear-mongering is powerful and the Legend of Sawney Bean really takes this trope — what happens to those who go against the grain, and what kind of people try to live outside of cultural norms — to its limits.

That is not to say it’s not a good story. With a good enough story, many a trope might be taken to its limits and do some serious damage, sometimes these tropes find themselves going under and resurfacing, recycled and redeployed, even turning tail and heading straight for the mouths that launched them (think worst U-boat nightmares).

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Delineations

Stories are dynamic.

Though complex, they often move and change like adaptive single-celled organisms.

They become cultured, they create culture, they change as cultures change yet often hold on to some old, tried nugget of a former self.

Some stories are visually, breathtakingly beautiful, colorful, vivid, contrasting elements of transcendent hope and earthy tumult.

But they are never innocent if, by innocent, one means, free of destructive capability, ideological intention, desire.

They eat time and shit ideology.

They eat ideology and try to shit something else and can’t.

They mesmerize.

Their uses are manifold.

They get around.

They come around and go around.

They buy time for those who want to stick around.

They have questionable aim but they almost always fire.

I’ve been reading a lot and though I will take more time to write about individual books and stories, I want to spend some time making general observations about what I’ve learned:

some scholars use the terms folktale and fairy tale interchangeably and some feel there is a fine line between the two and spend varying portions of their academic careers trying to draw that line

sometimes all the categories I’m trying to address here — myth, folklore, fairy tale, legend and fable — blur in the course of a scholarly essay

a lot of mythological and legendary writing comes from long bardic and other oral traditions, but mythological writing tends to address creation, gods, larger questions of the natural world, its fluctuations and manifestations. this can but does not have to draw the mythic tale outside the pale of folklore.

legendary writing that evolves directly out of oral tradition might also be considered folklore, though it tends to address elite historical figures and lager historical events and movements rather than “common people” and folkloric archetypes (trickster, martyr, fool, innocent, jealous female family member).

for some, the designation of folktale  implies only that a story has been passed down for generations and comes from a long oral storytelling tradition. in this case the story can have fantastical qualities or qualities of myth and fable and still be called a folk tale

some scholars use the term folktale to describe any oral tale

others call a written story with folk qualities folklore or folk tales. What gives a story folk qualities? I think it needs to be about folks.

but what of all the tales about ghouls, witches, magic transformations, princes, princesses, giants, little people, minuscule people, cupcakes. is it the subject matter or who is telling the tale — and under what conditions — that makes it a folktale?

I think that’s up to you.

I find the narrative quality — a certain talkiness and a certain lilt of amused informality — can hint at the stuff of folk. but it depends on whose folk. the way tales are told certainly varies from culture to culture and the urgency and humor of these tales varies from story to story, teller to teller, moment to moment. there is no stasis here

in my experience almost all non-fiction story telling and a lot of fictional story telling, can have folkloric qualities. but for me, a true folktale steers away from the literary — and by that I mean written flourishes, excessive description. things feel like folktales to me when they take on a certain familiar tone of voice, a narratorial simplicity, a marked modesty or bragadochio and offer an immediate settling of basic facts and details, often strangely specific and generic. “There once dwelt in Safed a Jew of great wealth and good fortune, who traded in jewels, diamonds, and other precious stones.” “Long, long ago there were two brothers who lived in separate houses but shared the farm they had inherited from their father.” “Once upon a time there was a merchant who had three sons.” “A certain Chelmite set out for Warsaw, holding his hands stiffly in front of him, and his two thumbs sticking upward.” “A girl who had only one brother liked the place where she and her parents lived.” “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy with at least a dozen problems in addition to all the ones you’ve already heard about, who was sent far away from his home.”

***

when I think of a traditional folk tale, I think of something that someone tells, or can tell easily in a group setting, that then gets retold, and might accumulate zaniness as it goes, a kind of skinny snowball effect. People enjoy the original or earlier telling because they can identify with the story or because it’s funny or because it’s just on the cusp of believability and maybe they can even say this wacky thing happened to someone they know.

A distant relation heard a story from his coworker. We’ll call his coworker J. J lives in a neighborhood that’s up and coming. He himself has lived there a long time and occupies a rag-tag house bordered by a ratty tatty yard boasting a dirty mangy dog. He could never stomach a white picket fence. A fence once lived where he lives. Now there’s one post left and it’s rotting.

A perfect family buys the house next door to J and moves in. They keep an immaculate house, an immaculate yard, an immaculate fence and hover over pristine children. Moreover, an angora rabbit floats back and forth inside a large, well-furnished hutch in the back yard. As you can imagine, she’s coiffed.

Right away tension builds between J and his neighbors. After only two weeks the cops have come to his house three times to tell him to turn his music down. A neighborhood committee has suddenly been formed and they’ve left him fliers with names of landscape architects. J’s at his wits end. Then his mongrel dog comes home one night scratching fleas and drops a dirty, floppy, very dead angora rabbit at J’s feet. He’s wagging his tail. (The dog.) It’s the neighbor’s rabbit. J is sure. He goes to the hutch and sure enough, the hutch is empty.

J’s panicked. He doesn’t know what to do. Will they sue him? Will they try to de-mange his dog? He looks online. Angora rabbits can cost up to two thousand dollars. And what about emotional damages.

He makes a decision.

Now he’s in the bathroom, filling the bathtub with warm, soapy water. He’s on his hands and knees, scrubbing the dead rabbit. Now he towels her dry. Now he pulls his sometimes girlfriend’s blow drier out of the cabinet that’s otherwise empty except for a bottle of old, cheap cologne, and starts coiffing. He uses his toothbrush because his lady friend took her hairbrush with her the last time she was over.

When he’s done primping her, the rabbit looks great. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, she’s never looked better. He even considers giving her a spritz of his cologne, but then thinks better of it. He feels something close to pride as he goes to the neighbor’s yard to deliver her.

He puts the rabbit back in the hutch. He takes a deep breath. He sleeps like a baby. In the morning, he gets up early to go to work. As he’s getting in his souped up flaming blue 1970 El Camino, he hears the following cries from the next door neighbor’s yard. “Daddy! Daddy! Come quick. The bunny came back to life!” his eyes scan the yard, sailing toward the voice. just before his gaze reaches the hutch, J sees the little grave his mangy dog dug up the evening before.

This story has, I think, folktale qualities. It can be ratted and primped and souped up, blue flames and all, but it has a solid core.

***

Folktales with magic in them are sometimes called fairy tales.

Sometimes they aren’t.

Sometimes it depends what kind of magic. More than that, it depends on the context of the tale.

Some scholars argue that while folklore comes from oral tradition, fairy tales have distinctly literary origins.

Some say while folktales might have fairies in them, fairy tales treat specific themes and generate specific kinds of characters and transformations (evil stepmothers, rags to riches, frog to prince, modest girl to princess). In this sense, fairy tales might be closer to cautionary tales or fables in their pedagogical aims.

But I am almost certain that if you picked up any book that claims it is full of folktales, most likely you will find in there stories that smacks of the fairy tale, fairy tales you know and love. And if you read about “Grimm’s Fairytales” you will learn that the Brothers Grimm claimed all the tales came from the oral traditions of regular folk when the truth is, many of the stories came from close female relations of theirs and the BGs…well…souped them up quite a bit to make them fit for print.

Stories, when written, don’t hold the throaty power of the literal voice, the fire of the teller’s eye, and so truffle for their own strength in a fine-tuning or flourishing of language. That other voice. Though I wouldn’t want to be the one to perform an operation separating one idea of voice from the other. The bleeding might stretch and roll, fill a driving expanse of water like they do the Nile in the myth of Ra.

I would argue that stories have intentions more than delineations. Categories are fluid and some stories fit more easily into specific categories than others. Off the top of my head I would identify fables as brief moral tales, often involving animals. According to wikipedia, “A fable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.” Already it’s clear, even a succinct definition of fable opens the door for endless crossover between genres.

Instead of stuffing stories awkwardly into categories, I am going to make a list of things I think stories that might come under one or more of the categories of folktale, myth, fable, legend and fairy tale, have traditionally intended to do:

Seduce; explain; entertain; teach; urge caution; provide advice; encourage religious conversion; pass time; pass down cultural or cultural/historical information; delineate a finite cultural identity or create or enforce cultural unity; call attention to the teller; extol the qualities of some shady character/important/powerful figure; extol qualities of a religion, a way of life; extol people places or things; trash people places or things; get people to gang up on — a person, a presumed category of persons, a culture, a religious group, an ethnic group — and shun them, convert them, kill them, or merely kick their ass.

And sometimes, after getting their ass kicked enough times, stories become the ammunition with which a community fights back. For example:

You might call stories about the Golem of Prague myth, legend, folktale, superstition. But these narratives are not born of a frivolous belief in the supernatural on the part of many Eastern European Jews — who believed also that Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, had the power to wake the Golem and send him on special missions, mainly, to stop Jews from being persecuted after accusations of ritually sacrificing and cannibalizing Christian children — a.k.a. blood libel.

Accusations of blood libel are insidious folktales in their own right. For at least two thousand years, blood libel accusations have been used by Greeks and Christians against the Jews in order to “reasonably” persecute or incite violence against them. Basically, Christians accuse Jews of killing their children and using their blood to make matzot for passover or for some other ritual purpose. (Obviously not up on laws of kashrut). And then they kill said Jews, or often persecute whole communities. Pogroms often started with such accusations.

The last blood libel case recorded in the United States occurred in 1928 in Massena, New York.

On erev Yom Kippur, 1928, the New York
State police brought in Rabbi Berel Brennglass of
Massena’s Orthodox congregation Adath Israel
for questioning. Four-year-old Barbara Griffiths of
Massena had disappeared and Albert Comnas, an
immigrant from Salonika, Greece, charged that, as
the highest of Jewish holy days was at hand, the Jews
of Massena might have kidnapped little Barbara
and ritually murdered her for her blood. The police
interrogated Rabbi Brennglass for more than an hour
about Jewish practices in respect to human sacrifice
and the use of blood in food. Fortunately, during
the interrogation, Barbara emerged from the woods
where, having become lost, she had spent the night
in the tall grass.
Her reappearance did not fully calm some towns-
people. They suggested that the Jews had released her
only on discovery of their plot. Choosing to believe
this was true, mayor W. Gilbert Hawes organized
a boycott of Massena’s Jewish-owned businesses.

(AJHS 2008, the story goes on)

So, we have stories — folktales — that circulate. According to these stories, Jews commit egregious crimes. These folktales are used as a tool to promote violence against Jews, and they have been very successful throughout the ages.

And then, we have the Golem of Prague and the great Maharal who, together, over and over again, according to Jewish lore, jump into the fray just in time to keep Jews from being punished and killed for blood libelous crimes they didn’t commit. These stories may not have  saved Jews from persecution, but they certainly provided a sense of hope, heroism, an antidote against hopelessness.

And, in fact, before the stories about the Maharal of Prague, comes an endless history of folktales in which Jews are miraculously saved from such persecution by Abraham, Isaac, Elijah, great rabbis, and I’m sure, Hashem.

Meanwhile, many stories which people have taken, over the centuries, to be myth or legend, and therefore fictional — turn out to have quite a bit of historical precedence. Stories of the Akkadian empire, for example, which I discussed briefly in a previous blog. As the legend of King Arthur shows, memory is a petri dish in which history and mythology change and grow to suit the needs and motifs of the moment.

And so, folktales and fables, legend and myth, the pithy fable…they often get tangled together and work miracles poorly and terror too well, but they do work, they do do things they set out to do, and then, they do things they haven’t even considered doing, and then they fly through time and people begin to wonder where exactly these stories originated and sometimes, in doing so, make great discoveries, and sometimes bark up very strange trees.

Which leads me to “The Legend of Sawney Bean.” Stay tuned.

(all images except the Golem come from “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, the oldest surviving animate feature film, made in 1926 by Lotte Reininger — story extrapolated from 1001 Arabian Nights)

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The other night I watched “Proteus,” a documentary about Ernst Haeckel, German biologist, naturalist, artist etc. who struggled to find a space for himself, torn as he was, for a time, between the study of biological forms and landscape painting.

The movie is named after an old Greek Sea God — “Old Man of the Sea” as Homer called him.

The name Proteus comes from the Greek protos which means first.

I find it heartening to believe that ancient myth as much as any contemporary theories of evolution, accounts for the connection between humans and other natural forms. And it seems there is a deep-rooted knowledge or sense within Greek and other mythology that we ultimately come from water — and have on many occasions nearly lost ourselves to it (As Bill Cosby so aptly puts it, “You know, I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”) Who knows, perhaps some of our lost tribes have made a home in the depthiest depths and flourish there.

I think I would understand from myth, had I never read one contemporary scientific stitch about evolution, that the sea came first and we are part of that beginning. Even reading “Beowulf” I was taken by the passages that address what water is to us — the greatest, most violent maternal mystery. The medium Beowulf must traverse (as if he is still sea-creature enough to breathe under water) to find the monster’s grieving mother and murder her and leave the womb at last. He is born back on land to traverse the sea and become king. “Beowulf” has so many layered connections to water and to questions of humanity, brotherhood, loyalty and ancestry.

I can’t say I know precisely why the documentary about Haekel was called “Proteus” though he, too, seemed to stake claim to several firsts. He was apparently the first to use the phrase “The First World War” in 1914. He officially came up with the theory of recapitulation — “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (prenatal development of an organism parallels its entire evolutionary process).  I imagine, though, the film is so titled because of Haekel’s connection to the sea. He was mesmerized and intoxicated by seafaring microorganisms and sea life and  managed to bridge the gap for himself between fine arts and biology by illustrating many of the sea’s exquisite  forms. Especially radiolaria, single-celled organisms with intricate mineral skeletons.

He discovered and illustrated thousands of them.

And so, Haekel manages to bridge the gap for himself between science and art, but must we create or imagine there is such a distinct gap? For quite some time it was common for artists and scientists to be overlapping creatures, both working with the same clay — curiosity, wonder, the desire to explain natural phenomenon — and for science to inspire art and  art science. I’m sure in many realms there is great overlap or hazy boundaries between what scientists and artists strive for and create, but there is also a flourishing belief that the two must somehow be pitted against each other or diminish each other like science religion, and perhaps non-religious art and religion, when they are all part of our quests for self-understanding and a deeper connection to our mythic past.

Perhaps this is in part because science can be so cruel. The cruelty of science, when it bears cruelty, is inimitable. But anything can be used ill. And maybe because art can be so whimsical. But the best scientists often take unimaginable flights of whimsy, and if nature doesn’t teach us of the fantastical delivery of fantastic forms made as much of whimsy (even if the whimsy of striving) as of water, what, from it, can we learn?

Haekel admired both Darwin and Goethe, and I like to think about Goethe’s experience of mythology as not just ideas that strive to understand nature, but an outgrowth of nature itself. Part of nature’s striving. As it is so nicely put in Feldman and Richardson’s address of Goethe in “The Rise of Modern Mythology”, for Goethe: “Myth depicts not moral truth, but the truth of nature as a totality of striving creativities” (263).

Speaking of striving creativities, today I started reading “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll, the biologist who wrote “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (I read it a couple years ago.) His writing about evolution and evolutionary biology is pretty gorgeous and accessible and reminds me of one of the things I love about pre-Judeo-Christian mythology. The intimacy between humans and gods and the constant, lifelike squabbling between them. The acceptance and even celebration of life and all of its messy, tragicomic desire and violence.

But one thing I adore about Jewish mysticism, nothing at all so far that I know of like the older myths, well, there are many things I adore about Jewish mysticism, but there is something so big bang about it — the idea that we are all made of stardust, that we are all made of the same stuff, and everything is nothing and everything is everything and that we’ve created Yud Hay Vov Hey, Hashem, the Shechinah… and that the divine has created us. (Daniel Matt in fact has a book called “God and the Big Bang” which I will have to add to my scrolling list of things to read).

Just so, Carroll quotes Darwin:

“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. “

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Over the last few days I read “Beowulf.” I chose the Seamus Heaney translation for obvious reasons, and also because it was recommended by several people.

I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Beowulf, and have read a handful of condensed versions, but this is the first time I’ve read a full translation. Heaney’s writing is beautiful and doesn’t shy from the native alliteratives or from perfect, politely intrusive musicality:

“He has done his worst but the wound will end him./He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,/limping and looped in it. Like a man outlawed/for wickedness, he must await/the mighty judgement of God in majesty.

I am intrigued by the strange organization of the story, the pre-tellings, re-tellings, bardic interruptions, and the almost bored, off-hand Christian heads-ups into what feels like an otherwise pre-christian mythic epic. For example, there are two references to the fact that Grendel’s and his mother — the nonspecific but ravenous man-eating monsters — and many other otherworldly monstrous forms are descendants of Cain.

Does that imply that Grendel comes from a line that has transformed from man to monster? That Cain was in fact born in something other than human form. Are we brothers to monsters? Are we supposed to feel some connection with or brotherly compassion for this monster, Grendel, son of Cain, son of God? Or are we just supposed to ignore the whole Cain business and move on as if it never happened, as if we know it’s a wink and a nudge, a grudged allusion.

(I found this little tidbit in the following Blog “Beowulf marks the point when the old myths of monsters and dragons become subject to an increasingly obtrusive Christian morality. The rationale for Grendel being one of the “sons of Cain” has always seemed laboured and unconvincing, however, as though the new religion had been written over something far older and far darker. It’s never quite clear what Grendel and his mother are, which is a great part of their attraction; as with HP Lovecraft’s monstrosities, our imagination rushes to fill the void left by the sketched outline.”)

There are mentions in the text of the problem of paternity that I would like to explore further and understand whether the absence of paternity is related to a grappling with the problem or inevitability of Christianity (coming to accept Christianity, to understand that fatherless equivalent to godless?): “I have heard it said by my people in hall,/counsellors who live in the upland country,/that they have seen two such creatures prowling the moors…They are fatherless creatures,/and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past/of demons and ghosts.” (1345-1358). (I can’t help but wonder about the procreative process)

So the story starts with Beowulf crossing the sea, a Geat coming to help the Danes with their problem with the progeny of Cain. Grendel has been eating quite a lot of Hrothgar’s men. Beowulf kills Grendel without a ton of fanfare (I was, I have to admit, surprised the feud wasn’t drawn out more), by tearing off his arm, and there is lots of mead drinking and celebrating, but soon it becomes clear Grendel’s mother will raise the next bit of hell. We meet Grendel’s mother the night after Grendel has died. She’s angry, brutal, and keening. She’s mourning the loss of her son and taking revenge, just as Beowulf and his men and Hrothgar’s men are taking revenge on the monsters for their losses. Again, I am fascinated by the portrayal of the mother/son connection, the anguish of the monster-mother, the fact of the female monster pitted against all of these earthy men.

Soon after Beowulf has torn an arm off of Grendel (hard to picture considering there is nary an earthly metal made blade that can pierce the skin of these beasts), he swims underwater for quite some time to get to Grendel’s mother (am I to understand he swims under water for the better part of a day?) Is Beowulf, too, part monster? Or is he part god? Or is he simply super-human (I’m not sure where that falls into these categories)? Is the imaginable distance between man and monster, monster and god, and man and god at times negligible? It makes me curious to learn more about Beowulf’s heroic mythological roots and pre-christian nordic folklore, though I think the best accounts we have of this come after Christianity has taken over (the good thing about folklore, is that it can be hell-raised, tenderized, bruised, dismembered but it’s pretty hard to kill. And, with that in mind, perhaps Beowulf is the entire key to the door of its own history.)

Since I have been thinking a lot about the bleeding and blending of cultural mythologies and languages between ransackers and ransacked etc., I was pleased by the sweet attention Heaney gave this topic in his introduction. He talked a little about Christianity and a lot about language.

Heaney’s introduction is beautifully written, cautious and illuminating. He talks about the literary quality of the work, the probable strangeness of the names and words for some of us reading it for the first time (who may at least some familiarity with Roman and Greek Mythology, i.e., but might find names such as Hrothgar and Hygelac) “Still,” he says, “in spite of the sensation of being caught between a “shield-wall” of opaque references and a “word-hoard” that is old and strange, such readers are also bound to feel a certain “shock of the new.” This is because the poem possesses a mythic potency…it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose…it passes once more into the beyond.”

I think for me that’s true largely because of the theme of the mother’s revenge, and the amazing, terrifying descents into swampy and more deeply watery places.

Heaney does address the influence of a fairly new (at the time) and not completely integrated Christianity into a story that predates monotheism, but he spends a lot more time discussing the linguistic connections he found with the “Old English.”

“Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language which I should by rights have been speaking but which I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and, more than that an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was, surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, therefore, the little word was–to borrow  a simile from Joyce–like a rapier point of consciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/ands, and this was an attitude which for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question–the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history and literary tradition in Ireland.”

Heaney goes on to discuss the winding influences between the lives of Irish and English language, which leads him to a story about the word tholian (the “th” sound is called forth by a letter that looks like a p but pointier at the top. It’s called a “thorn symbol.”)

He came accross the word tholian while translating Beowulf, and recognized the word because his aunt had used it regularly whn he was a child. “They’ll just have to learn to thole, my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now, suddenly here was ‘thole’ in the officual textual world…a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey tholian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line ‘Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,’ my heart lifted again, the world widened…” Heaney found that these connections helped him engage in the work of translating.

I mentioned in my last blog that I was reading about the myths and legends surrounding Irish trees, and that there is an important relationship between trees and the oldest Irish alphabet Ogham. I got a terribly outdated and outmoded book out of the library called “The Story of the Alphabet,” published in 1900. I was amused by the fact that the author, Edward Clodd, had, under his name, the following inscription “author of the story of primitive man, pioneers of evolution, the story of creation, etc.” as if he were in some way the author creation itself (etc.) A lot of the book is frighteningly simplistic and, I would venture, solipsistic, but here is a compelling bit from his introduction:

“These words themselves, as will also be shown concerning the ear-pictures by which they are represented, reveal in their analysis a story of the deepest interest. In the happy simile quoted by the late Archbishop Trench in his Study of Words, they are ‘fossil history,’ and, as he adds, ‘fossil poetry and fossil ethics’ also. To cite a few examples, more or less apposite to our subject, ‘book’ is probably from the Anglo-Saxon boc, a ‘beech,’ tablets of the bark of that tree being one of the substances on which written characters were inscribed. Parallel to this are the words ‘library’ and ‘libel,’ both derived from the Latin liber, the inner bark or rind of a tree used for paper; while, as everybody knows, the word ‘paper’ preserves the history of the manufacture of writing material in Egypt from the pith of the papyrus reed, the use of which goes back, as will be shown hereafter, to a high antiquity, and the classic name of which, biblos, has been applied to ‘bible.’”

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Since my plant identification adventures have begun to account for trees I’ve been wildly frustrated. There’s a class at Umass where you have to be able to identify 50 trees during winter when they are without leaves. I’m having a hard enough time in summer with leaves, flowers, fruit. Oaks I have down.Well, there are many varieties of oak and I’m hard pressed to tell one from another and there are some that I would only know if I saw the acorns.

(Portuguese Oak leaves)

(pin oak)

(shingle oak)

But for the most part, I know an oak is an oak. And I love oaks. They’re stately, beautiful, the leaves have tannic acid and can be used, like grape leaves in pickling cucumbers to keep the skins firm.

I can often identify witch hazel, cherries, maples, sycamore, apple, crabapple, mulberry. Sassafras, okay, another favorite, I can almost always identify by its three different leaves, whole (no teeth), puppyishly green.

But this whole tree identification thing is complicated. If I try to recognize most trees by size, shape, bark color and markings, I’m lost. But I’m keeping at it.

Providentially, when I was looking for books on Irish mythology, I found a book called “Irish Trees: Myth, Legends and Folklore” by Niall Mac Coitir. What could be better, I thought, than mixing trees with stories. Maybe it would even help me with my identification. The first thing I learned, which fascinates me, is the fact that the old Irish alphabet Ogham is actually based on trees. Each letter is named after or symbolizes a tree. Ogham is in fact often referred to as the “Celtic Tree Alphabet.” Moreover, it seems quite possible that the alphabet is made up of stories — myth, legend and folklore created this alphabet and not the other way around.

Mac Coitr uses the alphabet to organize the book. For each tree she gives its letter (or, for each letter, its tree. Though there is at least one letterless tree, the Whitebeam – Sorbus aria.) She talks about the tree’s uses and importance in communities as well as folk beliefs and customs surrounding the trees and then goes on to myths and legends where applicable. I’m learning a lot but can’t retain a lot of the information because I don’t have the context. There is a ton of information in this book and sometimes I get pretty lost. I will have to do further reading and then go back.

Meanwhile I’ve been reading “Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.” I once lost my glasses on the bottom of Lake Atitlan  (one of the deepest lakes in the world.) Fortunateley we weren’t at one of the deepest parts of the lake and the boat driver left me in the water (glassesless), took the boat to shore, got hold of a snorkel and goggles, brought the boat back (I was treading treading treading) and rescued them. Kind of miraculous. I bet not many people can say they lost their glasses and found their glasses on the bottom of Lake Atitlan. Then again, probably not many people fling their glasses mistakenly into the water while taking off their shirt.

The Mayan folktales are wonderful. Varied. In fact, some myths (creation myths) some fables, some folk tales. What I’m noticing in both the Irish and the Mayan stories is the Christian influences seeping in and also the struggle against Christianity overtaking their lore. Collective stories in some way comprise national and tribal identities and so it seems when the Christians came and colonized they either gave in to letting the people keep some of their  stories, language, rituals the way Aaron gave in with the golden calf or they simply couldn’t erradicate the language and stories trying and all.

Anyway, there’s an interesting intermingling of Christian lore and culture in both the Mayan and the Irish. Trees, fairies and saints all coming together in Irish lore. In the Mayan, there are some tricksters who get away with the goods without having to turn into Christian-type do-gooders — but there are also stories that accept and emulate christian themes. And there are a few stories starring dirty rotten lascivious Catholic priests preying on innocent Mayan women.

Two of my favorite Mayan folk tales: “The Woman and the Guardian” about a wife cheating on her husband — it’s humor and sauciness is reminiscent of canterbury tales; and “Story of Chema Tamales” about a lucky hapless gambler who gets himself into a lot of trouble and always finds a tricky way out of it (in the last episode of his tale, he convinces a priest to keep a trapped dove in his hat (Chema’s hat) while Chema took the priest’s horses to get a cage. What actually lay in Chema’s hat? his shit. By the time the priest notices, his orses were long gone. The story with the best title would have to be “The Woman Who Loved Many Hombres and Died from Drinking a lot of Water and a Piece of Sausage that She Had Eaten.”

I also read an science essay that interestingly touches on the topic of stories and cultural identity and also the fact that there’s a lot of fact in ancient myths and legends (maybe as much as there is myth and legend in most facts.) I think that there’s no such thing as a pure story, a pure culture, a pure language. But I can definitely see how traditional stories of a culture that has been colonized for example transform to accomodate their new environments and stories from the other or colonizing cultures are subsumed and transformed as well.

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Fisherman and His Soul

This is a blog for a study I’m doing of folk tales, fairy tales, myths and fables, and perhaps some legends thrown in there. I’m hoping to become at least a little articulate as to the question of the difference between each, though mostly I’m just interested in exploring a wide variety of stories that come out of these traditions.

Right now, if i had to put words to it, I might say:

Myths often involve gods and heroes try to account for natural phenomenon.

Folk tales are often less interested in gods and monsters, though such figures do find their way into folk tales. But for the most part, folk tales are stories about every day folks getting into every day trouble and sometimes getting out of it.

Fairy tales are stories with some serious magical intervention and often serve to moralize by either scaring the crap out of the reader (presumably kids?) or offering a belief in great recompense for good deeds. One scholar, whose name I’m forgetting,  believes that fairy tales do not necessarily come from the oral traditions that gave birth to myth and folk tales and should not be clumped in with either of the above. I do think that there is a lot of fairy related folklore in, for example, the Irish tradition. But typically they seem to be referred to as “folk tales” and “myths” even if they do involve fairies.

Fables also moralistic in tone but often more succinct, clearly pedantic and distinctly allegorical than fairy tales and tend to collaborate with talking animals.

Legends because so many stories we believe to be myth or wildly fabricated lore have some kind of truth lurking in them and the word legends, I believe, has the implication that there might be at least some truth in the unfolding. I’m pretty sure truth often goes hiding in legends and that often historical accounts turn to legend the way Adonis turns into a flower. (“The Curse of Akkad”, an essay by Elizabeth Kolbert, does a great job of addressing this topic and a few others, too. — Apparently there is also a book of the same name by a different author.)

I  titled this blog for an Oscar Wilde fairy tale called the Remarkable Rocket. Just read a book of his fairy tales “House of Pomegranites.” They were so beautiful, sad and sweet. There is a quality to the stories that makes me feel like they are being spoken aloud with no pains to keep them tidy and they take devious turns, unexpected, unexpectable, and leave room for so many more stories within. They are little, trembling, perfect tributes to the power of the story and while some of them take a seemingly traditional moral tone, I would argue that they are complex explorations of the power of beauty and  loneliness and odes to the ambiguity of honor.

I was especially taken by “The Fisherman and His Soul” in which a man chooses love over his soul, which may or may not show his tendency toward evil, and the soul goes on thrilling adventures continually tries to tempt the man to take him back by telling him the stories of these adventures.

Had a moment today during which I wondered what stories do not fall into the category of myth, folk, fairy and why. Fortunately that moment passed. But I am thinking a lot about the intersection of stories and cultural identity and cultural practices that revolve around story telling.

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